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An ode to ‘The Perfect Knight’

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There are a few moments in your life that you’ll look back on with sad fondness. The passing of Stan Musial is one of those moments for me.

I have been a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals since I understood what the game of baseball was all about. There’s a passion and a romance for baseball around this area, something that speaks to generations in different but parallel truths that can be ill-defined. It’s something more than a game.  Baseball is the friendship you form in a dry, dusty park in the summer with the neighborhood kids; it’s the dreams and the lights and the crack of the bat; it’s the simple joy of rallying over all odds to achieve it all that turns men into boys.

Lately, though, the game has been tainted. It has been tarnished and bruised by a culture that celebrates Greek gods over farm boy talent. See, that’s what made the old Cardinals so great. They were just local boys from small towns just down the road that had a knack for the “Pastime” that brought them to Sportsmen’s Park, and to Busch, and reaffirmed that, in America, anything is possible.

Stan Musial represents everything that is good about baseball. Allow me to share a few quick stories that among Cardinals fans are legend but may not have reached fans outside of St. Louis.

A former pitcher who could never gain control of his arm, Musial moved to the outfield and became one of the best. Some dreams come in strange forms, for Musial would, in his 22 seasons, hit .331 with 475 home runs. Stan won seven National League batting titles, was a three-time MVP and won three World Championships in the 1940s. He was the first Cardinal ever to have his jersey retired. Number 5 may have recently been called “El Hombre,” but Number Six will always be “The Man.”

In the late 1950s, after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the MLB, Musial was included in an All Star Game squad that included seven black players. According to legendary Giants player Willie Mays, Musial was the only white player to befriend the African-Americans in the clubhouse.

“We’re playing poker and all of a sudden I look up and here comes Stan toward us,” Mays said then. “He grabs a chair, sits down and starts playing cards with us. And Stan didn’t know how to play poker! But that was his way of welcoming us, of making us feel a part of it. I never forgot that. We never forgot that.”

Yesterday, senators from Missouri and Illinois proposed legislation to name the new Mississippi River span after the Cardinals legend. Stan’s legend has spanned generations, and his personality spanned a time when talking to a black man was an affront to society. What better memorial to his legacy than to name a bridge after him.

And, finally, my favorite story of Musial:

The Cardinals faced the Yankees in the 1942 World Series and won the pennant. In 1943, the Cardinals and Yankees faced each other again in the Fall Classic; the Birds lost this time. In 1944, the Cardinals won the World Series against the, believe it or not, St. Louis Browns.  The country was at war, but baseball continued. Following the season, on Jan. 23, 1945, Musial enlisted in the U.S. Navy, and was assigned to Pearl Harbor later in that year. He served until his honorable discharge in March 1946, just in time for the 1946 season.

The Cardinals won the World Series that year, too.

Let that sink in for a moment.

Stan Musial, who batted .347 and had 195 hits in the 1944 season, who had been to three World Series in three years, left his rising career to serve the United States of America. Imagine for me, if you will, athletes leaving their teams at the prime of their career and fighting for our freedom. Our generation has seen a call to war. Think of who didn’t respond to that call.

Musial made less than $3,000 in 1943, according to historical records. This season, in just one game, Albert Pujols will receive a bigger deposit in his bank account from the Los Angeles Angels than Musial received his entire 22-year career.

I was at the Scottrade Center on Jan. 19, ready to welcome back hockey to St. Louis. My phone buzzed with a text message, breaking news from the local news station. Stan Musial, baseball’s perfect knight, had died.

Everything about Musial reminds me that there is hope and spirit yet to be found in our athletes. He was never accused of steroids, was married to his wife for over 70 years and played harmonica for anyone who would listen.

Saturday night the Blues scored six goals.

It was the perfect tribute to St. Louis’ perfect citizen.

 

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